Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Or Romance?

Do you know that office romance is at a 10-year low? CareerBuilder’s 2018 Valentine’s Day Survey reports that the number of workers dating a colleague is down from 41% last year to 36% this year. The advice “Don’t date your honey where you get your money” seems to catch the mood of the current workplace. On this Valentine’s Day, let’s examine the impact of high profile sexual harassment claims and the #MeToo movement on our place of work.

Sharon Harrington is a fellow consultant from coastal Virginia. She investigates and mediates workplace conflicts. She has seen a heightened concern among employers to prevent bad behavior at work. She shares with us today advice on how to prevent sexual harassment while accommodating romance.


As Millennials become the largest generation in the workforce, there is no reason to believe the workplace dating will cease.  Polls show Millennials are more likely to engage in office romance than earlier generations. They see romantic relationships as having a positive effect such as improved performance and morale. It’s noteworthy that they are also more likely to speak up if someone behaves inappropriately towards them.  They bring a culture of resistance taught to them in school to the workplace.

Romance can become harassment when the attention is no longer welcomed by one of the parties. Unwelcome advances are problematic and should be halted immediately. Sometimes, a consensual relationship turns sour. A one-sided split can be awkward causing 6% of workers to leave their jobs.

Unless supervisors are trained counselors, they should refrain from offering relationship advice. This could make things worse.  Supervisors can acknowledge the situation and suggest contacting the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), seek personal counseling through their place of worship, or search online for ideas on how to recover from broken romantic relationships. 

Instead of resorting to a policy banning dating at work, encourage employees to come forward and declare their romance.  This written disclosure is often referred to as a “love contract.” Requiring a signed romance statement might feel awkward, but it is a transparent way to acknowledge their relationship is consensual.

Remind employees of the rules of professional and acceptable behavior in the workplace. The language should be descriptive and could include rules against engaging in public displays of affection as well as not turning a breakup into a nasty office drama that disrupts the workplace. Discuss the wording of the contract with each employee to ensure they understand the meaning and intent of the document.

Employers need to be sensitive to the perception of favoritism, charges of discrimination or a relationship that creates an uncomfortable work environment for others. These could lead to claims of a hostile work environment.

Be willing to engage with anyone with questions. Listen to the romance gossip. According to a SHRM survey, 67% of office romances are revealed through gossip.  

There is a downside to love contracts. They place supervisors and HR in a position of “love monitor.” Is this too much information? Will you fire employees because they did not adhere to the provisions of their love contract?  Keep in mind, 41% of employee romances are kept secret. 

For most employers, mutual flirting and dating are fine if they are consensual and don’t involve a supervisor and their subordinate. The happy news of the CareerBuilder’s Annual 2018 Valentine’s Day is 31% of workers who date at work ended up getting married, just like Barack and Michelle Obama who met in the workplace.  

 

Sexual Harassment WorkplaceAbout the author – Sharon Harrington leads the operations of Amediate, LLC. She focuses on conflict navigation. She works as a discrimination complaint investigator, employment mediator and trainer/facilitator. For more information, see http://www.amediatellc.com or email Sharon at Sharon.Harrington@AmediateLLC.com.

 

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